Posted on January 5, 2011
The trip report continues (you’ve been warned)….
We left Vienna on the 2nd and took one of Austria’s fine trains three hours west to Salzburg, home of Mozart and the Sound of Music. Salzburg was fairy tale beautiful. Nestled on the Salzach River at the edge of the Alps, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has lovely Baroque buildings in its Old Town under the shadow of its castle. We bundled up and walked for hours through its streets and alleys and plazas. Watch the movie — you’ll get the picture.
Man it was cold! Austrians get our vote for heartiest human beings on the earth. It was maybe zero degrees, but they were riding bikes (not just a couple of Scott Durand diehard types, but a LOT of them), eating sausages and drinking gluewein (warmed wine) at stand up outdoor tables, and just generally strolling about in droves as if it were a balmy fifty degrees. Infants? Bundle them up and get em outside. These people are tough.
We rented the hotel Land Rover and spent one day driving through the lake country and mountain valleys near Salzburg. Some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable, with alpine chalets and quaint villages, all glistening under a fresh blanket of snow. By the way, who thought it was a good idea to let the British design vehicles? It took us 30 minutes to get a door unfrozen, it had the turning radius of an M-1 tank, and somewhere deep into our adventure we started to feel heat. I developed an affection for the old thing by day’s end, truth be told, but they might be better suited for the Serengeti than Salzburg. We drove to the top of Gaisberg Mtn, a bit under 4,000′, and it was magnificent with great views of the city below and the feel of being inside a snow globe.
There is no lack of culture in this fine country. We visited a museum dedicated to photography and video and saw a fine show of Latin American photographs. Music, of course, abounds. For architecture buffs, the Baroque was invented here and we’ve visited churches exuberantly embelished and decorated. Add in amazing countryside, world class winter sports, and modern efficiency, and it is no wonder that tourism accounts for fifty percent of Austria’s GDP.
We liked it, a lot. And yet it is a little bit staid and almost too orderly. It feels like Switzerland or Singapore in that we marvel at how everything just works so well and it seems so well put together, yet it feels a bit Disneyesque. I am not sure we ever saw a creative edginess on display. Its culture seems more backward looking (and it has a proud history to be sure) than about re-invention of the kind that seems to drive the best of culture in the US (which I would argue is having one of its finest cultural periods in terms of music, film, architecture, and more even as we struggle in so many other ways).
We would visit again and recommend Austria to friends. But when our train pulled into Budapest today, a place caught in the tensions between its Communist past and its new capitalist future, carrying the burden of multiple histories (some of them horrific) with new TGI Fridays in a building still bearing bullet scars from the 1956 Uprising, we knew immediately that these next few days promise a more challenging and intriguing travel adventure. Our “gay run, but straight friendly” B and B is terrific (the owner met us at the train station to ward off the predatory taxi “sharks” and escort us to the place) and we had a top notch Indian meal tonight. Budapest looks promising. More to come.